On the Internet, "phishing" refers to criminal activity that attempts to fraudulently obtain sensitive information. There are several ways a scam artist will try to obtain sensitive information such as your social security number, driver's license, credit card information, or bank account information. Sometimes a scam artist will first send you a benign email (think of this as the bait) to lure you into a conversation and then follow that up with a phishing email. At other times, the scam artist will just send one phishing email.
Here are some questions to ask if you think you have received a phishing attack:
- Do you know the sender of the email? If yes, still be cautious before clicking a link. If no, do not click any links.
- Are there any attachments in the email? If so, is the attachment an executable (a file with the extension .exe, .bat, .com, .vbs, .reg, .msi, .pif, .pl, .php)? If so, do not click on the attachment. Even if the file does not contain one of the above mentioned extensions, be cautious about opening it. Contact the sender to verify its contents.
- Does the email request personal information? If so, do not reply.
- Does the email contain grammatical errors? If so, be suspicious.
- If you have a relationship with the company, are they addressing you by name?
- Have you checked the link? Mouse over the link and check the URL. Does it look legitimate or does it look like it will take you to a different Web site?
You can use these same questions if you receive a vishing or smishing attack.
Pharming is another scam where a hacker installs malicious code on a personal computer or server. This code then redirects clicks you make on a Web site to another fraudulent Web site without your consent or knowledge. To avoid pharming, follow the basic computer safety guidelines in Protect Your Computer. Also, be careful when entering financial information on a Web site. Look for the key or lock symbol at the bottom of the browser. If the Web site looks different than when you last visited, be suspicious and don’t click unless you are absolutely certain the site is safe.
Unfortunately, phishing emails are not the only way people can try to fool you into providing personal information in an effort to steal your identity or commit fraud. Criminals also use the phone to solicit your personal information. This telephone version of phishing is sometimes called vishing. Vishing relies on “social engineering” techniques to trick you into providing information that others can use to access and use your important accounts. People can also use this information to pretend to be you and open new lines of credit.
To avoid being fooled by a vishing attempt:
- If you receive an email or phone call asking you to call and you suspect it might be a fraudulent request, look up the organization’s customer service number and call that number rather than the number provided in the solicitation email or phone call.
- Forward the solicitation email to the customer service or security email address of the organization, asking whether the email is legitimate.
Though vishing and its relative, phishing, are troublesome crimes and sometimes hard to identify, there are things that you can do to protect your identity.
Just like phishing, smishing uses cell phone text messages to lure consumers in. Often the text will contain an URL or phone number. The phone number often has an automated voice response system. And again just like phishing, the smishing message usually asks for your immediate attention.
In many cases, the smishing message will come from a "5000" number instead of displaying an actual phone number. This usually indicates the SMS message was sent via email to the cell phone, and not sent from another cell phone.
Do not respond to smishing messages.
'Malware' is a general term used to refer to a variety of forms of hostile, intrusive, or annoying software.
Malware is short for malicious software, meaning software that can be used to compromise computer functions, steal data, bypass access controls, or otherwise cause harm to the host computer. Malware is a broad term that refers to a variety of malicious programs. This post will define several of the most common types of malware; adware, bots, bugs, rootkits, spyware, Trojan horses, viruses, and worms.
Adware (short for advertising-supported software) is a type of malware that automatically delivers advertisements. Common examples of adware include pop-up ads on websites and advertisements that are displayed by software. Often times software and applications offer “free” versions that come bundled with adware. Most adware is sponsored or authored by advertisers and serves as a revenue generating tool. While some adware is solely designed to deliver advertisements, it is not uncommon for adware to come bundled with spyware (see below) that is capable of tracking user activity and stealing information. Due to the added capabilities of spyware, adware/spyware bundles are significantly more dangerous than adware on its own.
Bots are software programs created to automatically perform specific operations. While some bots are created for relatively harmless purposes (video gaming, internet auctions, online contests, etc), it is becoming increasingly common to see bots being used maliciously. Bots can be used in botnets (collections of computers to be controlled by third parties) for DDoS attacks, as spambots that render advertisements on websites, as web spiders that scrape server data, and for distributing malware disguised as popular search items on download sites. Websites can guard against bots with CAPTCHA tests that verify users as human.
In the context of software, a bug is a flaw produces an undesired outcome. These flaws are usually the result of human error and typically exist in the source code or compilers of a program. Minor bugs only slightly affect a program’s behavior and as a result can go for long periods of time before being discovered. More significant bugs can cause crashing or freezing. Security bugs are the most severe type of bugs and can allow attackers to bypass user authentication, override access privileges, or steal data. Bugs can be prevented with developer education, quality control, and code analysis tools.
Ransomware is a form of malware that essentially holds a computer system captive while demanding a ransom. The malware restricts user access to the computer either by encrypting files on the hard drive or locking down the system and displaying messages that are intended to force the user to pay the malware creator to remove the restrictions and regain access to their computer. Ransomware typically spreads like a normal computer worm (see below) ending up on a computer via a downloaded file or through some other vulnerability in a network service.
A rootkit is a type of malicious software designed to remotely access or control a computer without being detected by users or security programs. Once a rootkit has been installed it is possible for the malicious party behind the rootkit to remotely execute files, access/steal information, modify system configurations, alter software (especially any security software that could detect the rootkit), install concealed malware, or control the computer as part of a botnet. Rootkit prevention, detection, and removal can be difficult due to their stealthy operation. Because a rootkit continually hides its presence, typical security products are not effective in detecting and removing rootkits. As a result, rootkit detection relies on manual methods such as monitoring computer behavior for irregular activity, signature scanning, and storage dump analysis. Organizations and users can protect themselves from rootkits by regularly patching vulnerabilities in software, applications, and operating systems, updating virus definitions, avoiding suspicious downloads, and performing static analysis scans.
Spyware is a type of malware that functions by spying on user activity without their knowledge. These spying capabilities can include activity monitoring, collecting keystrokes, data harvesting (account information, logins, financial data), and more. Spyware often has additional capabilities as well, ranging from modifying security settings of software or browsers to interfering with network connections. Spyware spreads by exploiting software vulnerabilities, bundling itself with legitimate software, or in Trojans.
A Trojan horse, commonly known as a “Trojan,” is a type of malware that disguises itself as a normal file or program to trick users into downloading and installing malware. A Trojan can give a malicious party remote access to an infected computer. Once an attacker has access to an infected computer, it is possible for the attacker to steal data (logins, financial data, even electronic money), install more malware, modify files, monitor user activity (screen watching, keylogging, etc), use the computer in botnets, and anonymize internet activity by the attacker.
A virus is a form of malware that is capable of copying itself and spreading to other computers. Viruses often spread to other computers by attaching themselves to various programs and executing code when a user launches one of those infected programs. Viruses can also spread through script files, documents, and cross-site scripting vulnerabilities in web apps. Viruses can be used to steal information, harm host computers and networks, create botnets, steal money, render advertisements, and more.
Computer worms are among the most common types of malware. They spread over computer networks by exploiting operating system vulnerabilities. Worms typically cause harm to their host networks by consuming bandwidth and overloading web servers. Computer worms can also contain “payloads” that damage host computers. Payloads are pieces of code written to perform actions on affected computers beyond simply spreading the worm. Payloads are commonly designed to steal data, delete files, or create botnets. Computer worms can be classified as a type of computer virus, but there are several characteristics that distinguish computer worms from regular viruses. A major difference is that computer worms have the ability to self-replicate and spread independently while viruses rely on human activity to spread (running a program, opening a file, etc). Worms often spread by sending mass emails with infected attachments to users’ contacts.
While these types of malware differ greatly in how they spread and infect computers, they all can produce similar symptoms. Computers that are infected with malware can exhibit any of the following symptoms:
- Increased CPU usage
- Slow computer or web browser speeds
- Problems connecting to networks
- Freezing or crashing
- Modified or deleted files
- Appearance of strange files, programs, or desktop icons
- Programs running, turning off, or reconfiguring themselves (malware will often reconfigure or turn off antivirus and firewall programs)
- Strange computer behavior
- Emails/messages being sent automatically and without user’s knowledge (a friend receives a strange email from you that you did not send)
Malware Prevention and Removal
There are several general best practices that organizations and individual users should follow to prevent malware infections. Some malware cases require special prevention and treatment methods, but following these recommendations will greatly increase a user’s protection from a wide range of malware:
- Install and run anti-malware and firewall software. When selecting software, choose a program that offers tools for detecting, quarantining, and removing multiple types of malware. At the minimum, anti-malware software should protect against viruses, spyware, adware, Trojans, and worms. The combination of anti-malware software and a firewall will ensure that all incoming and existing data gets scanned for malware and that malware can be safely removed once detected.
- Keep software and operating systems up to date with current vulnerability patches. These patches are often released to patch bugs or other security flaws that could be exploited by attackers.
- Be vigilant when downloading files, programs, attachments, etc. Downloads that seem strange or are from an unfamiliar source often contain malware.
Spam is the electronic sending of mass unsolicited messages. The most common medium for spam is email, but it is not uncommon for spammers to use instant messages, texting, blogs, web forums, search engines, and social media. While spam is not actually a type of malware, it is very common for malware to spread through spamming. This happens when computers that are infected with viruses, worms, or other malware are used to distribute spam messages containing more malware. Users can prevent getting spammed by avoiding unfamiliar emails and keeping their email addresses as private as possible.
Social engineering is the art of manipulating people so they give up confidential information. The types of information these criminals are seeking can vary, but when individuals are targeted the criminals are usually trying to trick you into giving them your passwords or bank information, or access your computer to secretly install malicious software–that will give them access to your passwords and bank information as well as giving them control over your computer.
Criminals use social engineering tactics because it is usually easier to exploit your natural inclination to trust than it is to discover ways to hack your software. For example, it is much easier to fool someone into giving you their password than it is for you to try hacking their password (unless the password is really weak).
Security is all about knowing who and what to trust. Knowing when, and when not to, to take a person at their word; when to trust that the person you are communicating with is indeed the person you think you are communicating with; when to trust that a website is or isn’t legitimate; when to trust that the person on the phone is or isn’t legitimate; when providing your information is or isn’t a good idea.
Ask any security professional and they will tell you that the weakest link in the security chain is the human who accepts a person or scenario at face value. It doesn’t matter how many locks and deadbolts are on your doors and windows, or if have guard dogs, alarm systems, floodlights, fences with barbed wire, and armed security personnel; if you trust the person at the gate who says he is the pizza delivery guy and you let him in without first checking to see if he is legitimate you are completely exposed to whatever risk he represents.
Common social engineering attacks
Email from a friend. If a criminal manages to hack or socially engineer one person’s email password they have access to that person’s contact list–and because most people use one password everywhere, they probably have access to that person’s social networking contacts as well.
Once the criminal has that email account under their control, they send emails to all the person’s contacts or leave messages on all their friend’s social pages, and possibly on the pages of the person’s friend’s friends.
These messages mayuse your trust and curiosity:
- Contain a link that you just have to check out–and because the link comes from a friend and you’re curious, you’ll trust the link and click–and be infected with malware so the criminal can take over your machine and collect your contacts info and deceive them just like you were deceived.
- Contain a download–pictures, music, movie, document, etc., that has malicious software embedded. If you download–which you are likely to do since you think it is from your friend–you become infected. Now, the criminal has access to your machine, email account, social network accounts and contacts, and the attack spreads to everyone you know. And on, and on.
These messages may create a compelling story or pretext:
- Urgently ask for your help–your ’friend’ is stuck in country X, has been robbed, beaten, and is in the hospital. They need you to send money so they can get home and they tell you how to send the money to the criminal.
- Asks you to donate to their charitable fundraiser, or some other cause – with instructions on how to send the money to the criminal.
Phishing attempts. Typically, a phisher sends an e-mail, IM, comment, or text message that appears to come from a legitimate, popular company, bank, school, or institution.
These messages usually have a scenario or story:
- The message may explain there is a problem that requires you to "verify" of information by clicking on the displayed link and providing information in their form. The link location may look very legitimate with all the right logos, and content (in fact, the criminals may have copied the exact format and content of the legitimate site). Because everything looks legitimate, you trust the email and the phony site and provide whatever information the crook is asking for. These types of phishing scams often include a warning of what will happen if you fail to act soon, because criminals know that if they can get you to act before you think, you’re more likely to fall for their phish.
- The message may notify you that you’re a ’winner’. Maybe the email claims to be from a lottery, or a dead relative, or the millionth person to click on their site, etc. In order to give you your ’winnings’ you have to provide information about your bank routing so they know how to send it to you, or give your address and phone number so they can send the prize, and you may also be asked to prove who you are often including your Social Security Number. These are the ’greed phishes’ where even if the story pretext is thin, people want what is offered and fall for it by giving away their information, then having their bank account emptied, and identity stolen.
- The message may ask for help. Preying on kindness and generosity, these phishes ask for aid or support for whatever disaster, political campaign, or charity is hot at the moment.
Baiting scenarios. These socially engineering schemes know that if you dangle something people want, many people will take the bait. These schemes are often found on Peer-to-Peer sites offering a download of something like a hot new movie, or music. But the schemes are also found on social networking sites, malicious websites you find through search results, and so on.
Or, the scheme may show up as an amazingly great deal on classified sites, auction sites, etc.. To allay your suspicion, you can see the seller has a good rating (all planned and crafted ahead of time).
People who take the bait may be infected with malicious software that can generate any number of new exploits against themselves and their contacts, may lose their money without receiving their purchased item, and, if they were foolish enough to pay with a check, may find their bank account empty.
Response to a question you never had. Criminals may pretend to be responding to your ’request for help’ from a company while also offering more help. They pick companies that millions of people use like a software company or bank. If you don’t use the product or service, you will ignore the email, phone call, or message, but if you do happen to use the service, there is a good chance you will respond because you probably do want help with a problem.
For example, even though you know you didn’t originally ask a question you probably a problem with your computer’s operating system and you seize on this opportunity to get it fixed. For free! The moment you respond you have bought the crook’s story, given them your trust and opened yourself up for exploitation.
The representative, who is actually a criminal, will need to ’authenticate you’, have you log into ’their system’ or, have you log into your computer and either give them remote access to your computer so they can ’fix’ it for you, or tell you the commands so you can fix it yourself with their help–where some of the commands they tell you to enter will open a way for the criminal to get back into your computer later.
Creating distrust. Some social engineering, is all about creating distrust, or starting conflicts; these are often carried out by people you know and who are angry with you, but it is also done by nasty people just trying to wreak havoc, people who want to first create distrust in your mind about others so they can then step in as a hero and gain your trust, or by extortionists who want to manipulate information and then threaten you with disclosure.
This form of social engineering often begins by gaining access to an email account or other communication account on an IM client, social network, chat, forum, etc. They accomplish this either by hacking, social engineering, or simply guessing really weak passwords.
- The malicious person may then alter sensitive or private communications (including images and audio) using basic editing techniques and forwards these to other people to create drama, distrust, embarrassment, etc. They may make it look like it was accidentally sent, or appear like they are letting you know what is ’really’ going on.
- Alternatively, they may use the altered material to extort money either from the person they hacked, or from the supposed recipient.
There are literally thousands of variations to social engineering attacks. The only limit to the number of ways they can socially engineer users through this kind of exploit is the criminal’s imagination. And you may experience multiple forms of exploits in a single attack. Then the criminal is likely to sell your information to others so they too can run their exploits against you, your friends, your friends’ friends, and so on as criminals leverage people’s misplaced trust.
Don’t become a victim
- Slow down. Spammers want you to act first and think later. If the message conveys a sense of urgency, or uses high-pressure sales tactics be skeptical; never let their urgency influence your careful review.
- Research the facts. Be suspicious of any unsolicited messages. If the email looks like it is from a company you use, do your own research. Use a search engine to go to the real company’s site, or a phone directory to find their phone number.
- Delete any request for financial information or passwords. If you get asked to reply to a message with personal information, it’s a scam.
- Reject requests for help or offers of help. Legitimate companies and organizations do not contact you to provide help. If you did not specifically request assistance from the sender, consider any offer to ’help’ restore credit scores, refinance a home, answer your question, etc., a scam. Similarly, if you receive a request for help from a charity or organization that you do not have a relationship with, delete it. To give, seek out reputable charitable organizations on your own to avoid falling for a scam.
- Don’t let a link in control of where you land. Stay in control by finding the website yourself using a search engine to be sure you land where you intend to land. Hovering over links in email will show the actual URL at the bottom, but a good fake can still steer you wrong.
Curiosity leads to careless clicking–if you don’t know what the email is about, clicking links is a poor choice. Similarly, never use phone numbers from the email; it is easy for a scammer to pretend you’re talking to a bank teller.
- Email hijacking is rampant. Hackers, spammers, and social engineerers taking over control of people’s email accounts (and other communication accounts) has become rampant. Once they control someone’s email account they prey on the trust of all the person’s contacts. Even when the sender appears to be someone you know, if you aren’t expecting an email with a link or attachment check with your friend before opening links or downloading.
- Beware of any download. If you don’t know the sender personally AND expect a file from them, downloading anything is a mistake.
- Foreign offers are fake. If you receive email from a foreign lottery or sweepstakes, money from an unknown relative, or requests to transfer funds from a foreign country for a share of the money it is guaranteed to be a scam.
- Set your spam filters to high. Every email program has spam filters. To find yours, look under your settings options, and set these high–just remember to check your spam folder periodically to see if legitimate email has been accidentally trapped there. You can also search for a step-by-step guide to setting your spam filters by searching on the name of your email provider plus the phrase ’spam filters’.
- Secure your computing devices. Install anti-virus software, firewalls, email filters and keep these up-to-date. Set your operating system to automatically update, and if your smartphone doesn’t automatically update, manually update it whenever you receive a notice to do so. Use an anti-phishing tool offered by your web browser or third party to alert you to risks.